Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 3

So, in my last installment of this series, I pointed out that there have been two different approaches taken for D&D in terms of creating a basic set. The first of these, the Holmes basic set, was essentially a full set of rules that only went up three levels. The second, the Moldvay Basic set, was the first half of a complete game, a game that ran parallel with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons all the way up to the top possible levels. The rules of this parallel game were less complex than the rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (for those who are unfamiliar with the game's first edition, it was a rather difficult game if you tried to use all the rules).

Now that Wizards of the Coast has released a new basic set for 5th Edition D&D, it's worth taking a look at the philosophy and approach of the new approach. Is WotC taking the "just for a couple of levels" approach, or the "less-complex but all-the-way-to-the-end" approach?

The answer, interestingly enough, appears to be that they are simultaneously taking both approaches. What's different here with the two past offerings isn't the contents, it's the medium. The starter kit, which comes in a box and will get sold in stores, apparently takes the Holmes approach. It's only good for a short time; you learn the essential rules and you have some pregenerated characters. You don't have the ability to level them up beyond a certain point, and you don't even have the rules to build different ones. Some people (all of them experienced gamers on the internet) labeled this as crippleware, even though it's a basic set. If the starter set is viewed in isolation, I suppose it's not as robust as the Holmes set. However, let me tell you something, the Holmes set wasn't exactly easy to learn. It wasn't until the Moldvay set that any kind of linearity of concepts really leached into the D&D rules, Basic or Advanced. The Holmes set, like OD&D, was magical. AD&D was rich and epic. Moldvay, however, came up with the first easy-to-learn version. Let's not hear the argument about "kids these days:" I got the XP rules from Holmes dead wrong, and I'd read the Hobbit at age 5, and eventually got a perfect score on the SAT verbal, and went to Harvard. The Holmes rules weren't easy to nail.

WotC has taken the discrete task of "get playing and learn through playing" to a new extreme. Here are your pre-generated characters. How to use them. Go.

At the same time, though, there's the rest of the plan, the other shoe, the parallel strategy, whatever you want to call it. With the free pdf of the Basic Rules, WotC picks up the BEMCI (Mentzer Basic) approach to Basic-ness to accompany the "even simpler than Moldvay" one.

That's enough for this installment -- in the next one I will pick up why the difference between past and present is centered on the medium rather than the content of the WotC 5th Edition Basic.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 2

So, after yesterday's post about the first Basic Set, the Holmes Blue Book, let's recap by saying that the Holmes set lacked vital rules for playing beyond a certain point. It wasn't a working but simplified version of AD&D (e.g., missing rangers, some spells from each level, some monsters, some treasure, etc). Rather, it stopped working entirely at a certain point.

The next Basic Set to come out was the 1981 Red Box, "Moldvay Basic," or "B/X." The reason for the "X" in "B/X" was to stand for the Expert Box that a gaming group could move on to once they had exhausted the resources of the Basic Set.
Now, if you've been keeping track of my focus so far, you've probably already guessed the point I'm about to make. The Holmes Basic Set graduated the players up to Advanced D&D. The Moldvay Basic Set (which went to level 3 just like the Holmes set) didn't. It graduated you to something that was effectively a parallel to Advanced D&D, because the Expert set (which I just looked up for information) went to level 14. At this point in time there were two versions of low-to-high-level D&D.

I don't have much to add about 1983 "Mentzer" Basic, also called BEMCI because it contained Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal rules. I never happened to play this edition (I was a proud-to-play-Advanced-snob even by the time of the Moldvay set), but the Mentzer edition isn't relevant to this particular history because it's essentially a continuation and a culmination of the trend started with the B/X sets -- the creation of a parallel D&D game.

Although there have been other D&D Basic sets, the continuum from Holmes to Mentzer set the stage for two different approaches to Basic Sets, which now that I have established, I'll get into in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 1

Dungeons & Dragons has used the concept of a "Basic" version since fairly early in the game's history. With the game first being published in 1974, the Holmes Basic set came out in 1978, four years later. Together with an expanded Monster Manual, the Basic Set ("Holmes Basic," or the "Blue Book") was an integral part of the marketing plan for the first radical step in rules revisions that TSR was to make: the new "Advanced" D&D. The Holmes Basic set gave players (and DMs) a full and robust set of rules for playing their characters up to third level but no further.Oddly, it contained several monsters far too difficult for characters of low level. For me, that was like heroin. I had to get the expanded, Advanced game so I could fight purple worms and dragons. From the standpoint of marketing, it was brilliant.

The fact that it only went to third level was absolutely fine to us at the time. It certainly meant that we wanted AD&D, but we saw AD&D almost as an expansion rather than something that would cure the "crippleware" of a Basic set that only went to third level. In other words, I don't think it was crippleware; it wouldn't be now, and it most certainly wasn't at that time in history before the internet made us expect everything for free.

Interestingly, Holmes Basic had LOTS of rules that were completely different from AD&D. Those rules have actually been duplicated and used to created an entire game based on Holmes that reached beyond third level. However, these differences were pretty much disregarded at the time, at least by everyone I knew, as the parts that made the game "Basic." For all I know, that might have been what TSR intended. It's interesting, though, because I think the internet would die of nerdrage if WotC's free (FREE!) Basic Game turned out to have such differences as the Holmes Set did to AD&D.

I don't mean to be delivering one of those "uphill in the snow and we LIKED it" tirades -- I'm trying to point out a couple of areas where the lack of instantaneous communication probably affected the relationship between a Basic Game and an Advanced Game in a big way.

Wizards of the Coast is releasing a Basic Game into the piranha tank of the internet age, and I'm going to take a look at some of the parameters of the game, talking about the entire theory of a Basic Game (and a couple of historical comments about TSR, although I'm very much only a dilettante of D&D's history). For the time being, here is the page with WotC's parameters for the 5th edition Basic Game.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Keying the Map, or Mapping the Key

I've seen this discussed before on a message board, but I can't find the thread. The question was this: when getting ready for the game, do you (a) draw a map first and then key it, (b) draw the map and the key at the same time working as you go, or (c) write some sort of key (such as a roster of monsters and traps) before building the map to suit? This also begs another question, that of the backstory. In general, unless it's a funhouse type of dungeon, there's a backstory -- whether or not it's ever revealed to the players, some sort of idea usually unifies the encounters even in a location-based adventure.

What's the order in which you mentally organize, prioritize, and develop your adventures?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stuff Monsters Have

One way of generating interesting treasures, especially when it's a powerful monster, is to think about what's important to the monster. What kinds of things might a dragon really need? If the answer is that, hey, maybe this one needed a laxative recently ... pity the adventurer who misuses that barrel of pink potion in the lair. How do guy dragons make themselves attractive to the scaly sirens at the saurian singles bars? Is there a bucket of scale-shinola in the lair's hidden compartment? Maybe that stuff actually strengthens metal armor (or leather armor) for short periods of time.

And do dragons have pets? A pet and some pet supplies would be interesting stuff to find in the dragon's lair. Watch the characters take really, really good care of that cockatiel until they can figure out what it "does." Negotiating with a dragon that wants 40 pounds of mixed seeds?

The most recent bit I wrote this morning was about a monster that eats brains. In the treasure hoard? A long-handled gold spoon...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sometimes You have to Lower the Bar to Improve Things

Sitting here with a cup of coffee, typing away at Chapter 7 of my Cyclopean Deeps "Under Realms" mini-campaign, my thoughts drifted over to the problems I've been having with this blog. I think I just figured something out.

Really, the hardest part of keeping a running blog isn't the writing, it's thinking up the interesting topics. If you come up with something interesting but you don't really cover the ground very well, or perhaps you miss your own point, that's okay: someone else is likely to pick up the topic, handle it better, and link back to your blog. Even Homer had some places in the Iliad and the Odyssey that didn't really measure up. It's not a catastrophe.

What I've been doing, subconsciously, is rejecting the topics that are of medium interest. If I didn't have some sort of Big Idea, I didn't write at all. That's not what people read blogs for (although the occasional Big Idea increases visitor numbers, especially if it's controversial).

I need to focus on the fact that it's okay to have blog posts that are chatty rather than profound, that can even be stupid sometimes. The willingness to stumble out with a half-baked idea isn't an insult to the readers (provided that it's only occasional) -- it's a sign that you respect the readers enough to post something where they have to connect a few of their own dots. Every so often, a half-baked idea can lead to several awesome ones.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Duck with some Blog on the Side

This particular post is time-limited, since it's about a sale going on. Purple Duck Games has a Swords & Wizardry module that's on sale at the moment. It's called the Monastery of Inexorable Truth. I haven't read it myself, but it has a five star review from a staff reviewer. For $2.67, it's worth taking a look at a well-reviewed product.

Why haven't I read it? Good question. It's because I very seldom read anything written by someone else. I'm worried that it would be too easy for me to assimilate a visual picture, or a neat idea, and then duplicate it later without realizing that it was a memory rather than an idea. It doesn't say anything bad about the Monastery of Inexorable Truth.

Purple Duck also carries a large inventory of DCC and at least one Pathfinder resource that I could see, so if you play other fantasy RPGs you might find something to your tastes.

Okay, that was the duck. The title also mentions a side order of blog, and blogging is something I haven't really been doing enough of ... at least, not here. At the Frog God Games website we've kicked off an initiative to have a daily blog going, and I'm part of that effort. If I write a good post on a general topic, I'll cross-post it to here, but I'll probably also be putting up a couple of chatty little blog posts that are really specific to fans of Frog God Games, and I won't bother to reproduce them here. Therefore, if you're a fan of Frog God Games, head over to the blog page there and take a look. It isn't just me blogging there: Bill Webb, Skeeter Green, and others will be putting up their ideas and experiences about gaming and Frog-Godliness.